When I think of the early church, I marvel the power of their witness. This small, non-violent group of believers- who would often go willingly to their brutal deaths- were feared by the powerful Roman Empire. They were feared, in large part, because the power of Rome could not touch them- when the threat (and the reality) of suffering and death are met with humble, even joyous acceptance, the powers that be begin to get nervous- as much so today, as then.
Emperor Julian especially hated the Christians, frustrated by their indiscriminate compassion. One record has him saying that their numbers were “specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” In other words, they were selflessly caring for the very people who persecuted and killed them. Such a witness!
Yet we also know that there is not such thing as an “ideal community”. These Christians were human like the rest of us. They failed. They sinned. They screwed up. However, even hear many of them distinguished themselves. With astonishing honesty and humility, the early Christian community was bold with their confession and repentance of sin. After all, they loved Jesus and His good news enough to die for it. They realized the very integrity of the gospel they lived and proclaimed was given (or robbed of) authority in large part by their character. What a Church!
As I considered this, I remembered that Jesus had said to Peter that he was the rock upon which this Church would be built. Upon reflection, this made perfect sense. After all, Peter for no stranger to screwing up. He seemed to be the disciple who would speak/act first, then think later- hushing Jesus about his pending death; loping off the ear to protect Jesus; and best known, denying Christ three times in the hour of His greatest need.
This last event- his betrayal of Jesus- gave me pause. Something occurred to me that I had not considered before: How did we come to have that story in the Gospel record? In all likelihood, the only way such a story survived- and made it into such a significant place in the Gospel- is because Peter confessed his betrayal. Consider that for a moment: Given the opportunity to help shape your own biography, why voluntarily share your greatest failure?
Like the early Christians, Peter knew what was at stake: the authority and authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It struck me how often I have sought to be a good witness to a watching world by hiding, minimizing or glossing over my failings. After all, we want people to see us in our “Sunday best”, literally and metaphorically. And yet, Peter knew that it is in our brokenness, in our confessed sin and in the power of the grace of God, that the Gospel demonstrates its greatest power and beauty.
All too often we fall into extremes. On one hand, in our over emphasis of confession and repentance, we lose the radical love and grace of Christ, making our message, not one of hope, but one of fear, judgment and pretense. On the other hand, in our commitment to emphasize love and grace, we minimize the reality of our sin and brokenness, abuse this awesome gift of Christ like a cheap “get out of Hell free” card. The truth is, however, that because of the love and grace of God, confession and repentance can bring us to rejoicing rather than condemnation.
To become a community of confession- and confession is significantly (even primarily) a communal discipline- requires a costly intentionality. This doesn’t just happen. It is especially challenging when we live in a culture- and even a Christian sub-culture- that sets the bar so low. However, the measure of our faithfulness is not measured against the average Christian expectation. It is not even measured against the best of Christians among us. Rather, it is measured against the impossible standard of Jesus Christ. Impossible to achieve by any strength of our own, but wholly and beautifully possible by the Spirit of God the unites and empowers us as the Body of Christ.
How is confession and repentance a part of your communal spiritual disciplines? Where might you be more intentional?